Islam's Feminism: Stereotyped yet Inherent
Contrary to common belief, the stigmatization of Islam is no exception to the folly perpetuating any other type of ignorance.
As it was introduced in the seventh century, Islam is the youngest of the world’s major religions. At the time of its creation, the Qur’an (the holy book of Islam) intentionally inluded feminist tenets in order to help women who were being oppressed in the pre-Islamic era.
In the seventh century, newborn daughters were commonly buried alive. Even the daughters who survived to adulthood were denied suffrage and a political voice. However, once Islam was introduced in Mecca in 600 CE, women gained suffrage and were permitted to participate in political activties. This legislation was revolutionary; in fact, the US itself did not give women suffrage until 1920. Islam was about 13 centuries ahead of its time. Similarly, married women were forbidden from owning property and investments until the 1870s. However, the Qur’an explicitly states that women have no responsibility to transfer property to their husbands upon marriage. Once again, such a basic tenet of Islam was ahead of its time by 12 centuries.
Islam even sought to give a sort of affirmative action to women. Prophet Muhammad said that Muslim women do not have to invest in their children or husbands; rather, it was men who should invest their money into their families. Furthermore, Prophet Muhammad claimed that mothers deserve three times more respect than fathers as retribution for having carried a baby for nine months.
The truth is abundantly clear: Islam, if practiced correctly, is an inherently feminist religion. However, many non-Muslims tend to conveniently ignore the latest manifestation of white saviorism: “saving” Muslim women from wearing the hijab.
First, a thorough understanding of the context for the hijab’s use in Islam is crucial.
In 600 CE, women who needed to relieve themselves in the middle of the night would travel to the outskirts of their cities. This oftentimes became dangerous, as predatory men would linger in these areas. However, any woman who wore a jilbab was left alone. A jilbab was a woman’s garment that was a status symbol for freedom, indicating that any woman who was victimized would hold her attacker accountable.
As the jilbab became increasingly popular, a new verse of the Qur’an was revealed: while wearing a jilbab was recommended, a woman’s dress in society should be based on custom and function. This verse was implemented for the woman’s safety and convenience, and is one of three verses out of the 6000 in the Qur’an that highlights how women should dress.
The key aspect of these three verses, however, is that coverings are recommendations rather than required: while the hijab has become a common way for Muslim women to showcase their religious pride, it is by no means mandatory. In fact, it is haram (forbidden) to force any woman to put on or remove her hijab. This is solely a choice between a woman and her iman (faith).
The modern question arises: why are women generally oppressed in nations that have Islam as the state religion? Bangladeshi-American high schooler Nujhat Neha provides a simple explanation: “The majority of the laws that Islamic governments promote are haram (forbidden): forced marriages, restricted education, forced hijab, etc. These are all the wrong things that culture has produced, NOT the religion.” As co-captain of her school’s Women’s Empowerment Club, Neha has discussed the intersection of Islamophobia with sexism in Western society, specifically the introduction of hijab bans in Europe. In these discussions, she explains how she chose to wear her hijab for herself, as it is a key aspect of her identity. “People are forgetting the respect that the Qur’an gives women because of the twisted way the patriarchal culture has created their society,” she says.
Simply put, an ignorant cultural mindset has culminated in the belief that the oppression of Muslim women is inherently linked to Islam, when it is in fact the opposite.
The real question that non-Muslims should be asking themselves is why these stereotypes are so pervasive. For instance, why is there little positive representation of Muslims in the media? While most Western television shows do not feature Muslims, those that do often portray Muslim women as opressed by their families and religion. The recent movie on Netflix Cuties was portrayed on Netflix as featuring an adolescent Muslim girl who attempted to break free of her family’s restrictions by joning a twerking group. There is currently a petition on change.org asking that the movie be removed from Netflix.
There is also the issue of double standards: various other cultures and religions wear headscarves as a source of pride, yet only Muslim women are conflated with the legislation of Middle Eastern oppressive governments. It is considered highly fashionable for women in the Ivory Coast to wear head scarves, a trend which has continued for black women in the US, Oceania, and Europe. Many Eastern Europeans, Turks, Filipinos, Japanese, and Sikhs also wear head scarves for spiritual or cultural reasons. Both Hasidic Jewish women and nuns are expected to cover their hair for religious reasons. The perception of Muslim women should be called out for what it blatantly is: sexism, as well as Islamophobia.
Recently, a disturbing trend has emerged in Europe that perpetuates this cultural ignorance: legislation that criminalizes the hijab. In 2004, France passed a hijab ban in public schools from grades K-12. This ban was technically placed on all religious garments, including hamsas, crosses, and other religious symbols. It remains in place today. Bosnia and Herzegovina followed suit in 2017, banning the hijab and all other religious symbols in judicial institutions. Less stringent restrictions are placed in Albania, where school principals have the right to set dress codes prohibiting the hijab, or in Germany, where eight out of 16 states restrict female teachers from wearing the hijab.
In 2017, the European court of justice ruled that employers can prohibit staff members from wearing visible religious symbols. It also ruled that customers cannot simply demand that workers remove their hijab if the company has no policy barring religious symbols.
The most recent piece of legislation was passed just three months ago when the Belgian court ruled it constitutional to prohibit the hijab in all universities and higher education institutions. This law sparked international outrage as thousands of hijabis protested in the streets of Brussels. While various universities openly defy the law, it still exists as legal precedent today.
Western legislators argue that because these laws technically apply to all religions, they are not Islamophobic. However, the reality remains: the hijab is intrinsic to Muslims of all sects, not solely the more conersative followers as with Judaism and Christianity. This is why it is much more common for Muslim women to wear hijabs than for Jewish women to wear hamsas and Christian women to wear crosses. In effect, legislation banning religious garments disproportionately affects Muslim women, and is thus Islamophobic. Under the same token, this legislation is anti-semitic as well.
Though veiled as supporting feminism, these laws are also sexist: it is just as patriarchal for majority-male legislators to tell a woman what not to wear, as this is still restricting her choice. All religious garments are a source of pride for women, and the hijab is by no means an exception. In fact, the hijab is arguably the quintessence of such pride.